Professional Development Opinion

Teachers As “Givers, Takers & Matchers": An Interview With Adam Grant

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 21, 2013 8 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I’ve been publishing thematic compilations this summer of past posts. However, this week I’m “changing it up” a bit.

Adam Grant, author of the best-selling book Give and Take and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, agreed to answer a few questions about how we educators can connect what he’s written to our work in the classroom.

LF: In your book, you suggest that all of us tend to fall -- more or less -- into three categories: givers, takers and matchers. You also write that people who are givers and who, at the same time, are not entirely selfless and can also keep their own self-interests in mind, are the people who are most successful in most fields.

In support of your belief that givers are most successful, you write that “most of life isn’t zero-sum” -- in other words, people who give will end up “reaping rewards.” I’ve often thought about classroom management in similar terms, recognizing that power is not a finite pie -- if teacher give some to students, that doesn’t mean we’ll have less. In fact, the whole pie gets bigger and more possibilities are created.

What are your ideas on how teachers might be able to help students learn these lessons about giving?

Adam Grant:

In my experience, the best way to appreciate the power of expanding the pie is to experience it firsthand. My favorite approach is the Reciprocity RingTM, an exercise that I run in my classes. It involves asking students to make a request for something they want or need, but cannot obtain or achieve on their own. For example, they might ask for job leads, or for tickets to see their favorite band or sports team in action. The rest of the class is responsible for using their knowledge, skills, and connections to fulfill the request. Students are often pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to help others, and quickly recognize that it doesn’t have to come at a personal cost.

LF: You talk about two ways to build influence, though dominance and through prestige, and that dominance over others is a “zero-sum” game while prestige has more lasting value.

Could you talk a little more about that and how that might look in the K-12 classroom? It seems contrary to the old teacher adage of “don’t smile until Christmas.”

Adam Grant:

As Susan Cain points out in Quiet, when students work together in groups, it’s often the loudest speaker who ends up taking charge. In addition to missing out on some of the most valuable ideas, this prevents the other students from earning the respect of their classmates. A wonderful solution to this problem was introduced by the psychologist Elliot Aronson. It’s called a jigsaw classroom: students work together on a group project, and every student is responsible for a distinct part of the project. Along with allowing students to help each other, it opens the door for them to see each other’s strengths and talents. Aronson’s research demonstrates that this structure increases respect between students, especially in classrooms that were previously rife with prejudice and discrimination.

For teachers, dominance is established through speaking confidently and assertively. Although this can establish authority, it sometimes undermines respect, as students feel that teachers are attempting to control them. In Herb Kelman’s classic language, dominant teachers sometimes elicit compliance (I will follow your directions because I have to), rather than identification and internalization (I will follow your directions because I respect you, or because I believe in the behaviors). Research on the power of powerless speech by Alison Fragale suggests that teachers can build respect by speaking confidently in their areas of expertise, but expressing uncertainty and admitting when they don’t know the answers.

LF: You write about the value of asking for advice -- both in terms of the helpful information that can be gained and by how it influences a relationship. You mentioned how Ben Franklin used it as a form of flattery, and I’ve also heard it referred to as The Ben Franklin Effect. You also talk about it also only working if it’s sincere and not just a form of manipulation. I’ve found asking advice from students, and from parents about their children in my class, very helpful on many levels.

How have you been able to get people to see the value in this kind of advice-seeking, and help them see it’s not a sign of weakness?

Adam Grant:

I know of two ways to convince people to see the value of advice-seeking, and I adopted both of them in chapter 5 of Give and Take. One strategy is to share stories of how it can be useful, like the Ben Franklin example. The other strategy is to present evidence about when, how, and why it works. Katie Liljenquist has done some brilliant studies revealing that asking for advice is a powerful way to achieve influence without authority. Katie finds that when we seek advice, it tends to make others feel important, and it also encourages them to take our perspectives. In combination, these forces can lead adversaries to become advocates. When students encounter this evidence, they begin to realize that advice-seeking is not a sign of personal weakness, but rather a way of helping others feel strong.

LF: You write about a Teach For America member who was suffering from burn-out. One way she got through it was by adding volunteer time to her schedule to help other students and to help other teachers. It’s a great story , but I’ve got to wonder how realistic this kind of strategy is for many teachers with families who are in the profession for the long-term.

Many of us believe that schools themselves should create time during the school day for teachers to work together collaboratively and for experienced teachers to mentor newer ones. Do you think school districts should carve out that kind of time and, if so, what would you say to convince them?

Adam Grant:

I would love to see more schools create time for teachers to help and mentor each other. I might convince them with three lines of evidence. First, as I note in chapter 6 of the book, we have three decades of research showing that receiving help and support is one of the most effective ways to prevent burnout. Second, there’s also a wealth of evidence showing that employees are less likely to quit when they feel strongly connected and attached to their colleagues. Third, there’s also research that mentoring is not only beneficial to the recipients; it also benefits the mentor. In fact, Tammy Allen and her colleagues find that mentors earn higher salaries and promotion rates--and experience greater satisfaction--than non-mentors. The research that I’ve done with several colleagues shows that when teachers are able to share their knowledge, they develop stronger feelings of making a difference and being valued, which can increase their motivation and effectiveness while protecting against stress and exhaustion.

LF: It seems to me that explicitly teaching lessons based on your book and highlighting the advantages of being a giver might have a role in reducing the amount of bullying in schools.

Do you have any thoughts on if that could be useful and, if so, how?

Adam Grant:

This is a fascinating idea; it hadn’t occurred to me that some of these ideas might be applied to reducing bullying. Jana Haritatos, a psychologist at HopeLab, raised a similar point, and we discussed the possibility of helping bullies redefine their identities as givers. The core idea would be that bullies could feel stronger if they dedicated themselves to stopping other bullies, rather than picking on smaller children. I can envision creating a superhero designation around protecting peers from bullying, which might become a source of pride among some of the most imposing children. I might start by asking students to give speeches and write stories about the harm caused by bullying, and the benefits of preventing bullying. In addition to persuading others, the students who give these speeches and write these stories may end up persuading themselves. As Aronson has shown in another line of research, if you want to cultivate a particular attitude, one of the most effective methods is to get that person to advocate the importance of that attitude to someone else.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about today that you’d like to share?

Adam Grant:

The prospect of giving and making a difference is one of the major draws to the teaching profession. At the same time, many teachers never get to see the long-term impact of their work after students leave their classrooms. Some of the research that I cover in chapter 6 shows that when people have a chance to see the lasting contributions of their efforts, they find their work more meaningful and worthwhile, and become inspired to work harder, smarter, longer, and more productively.

With that in mind, a few years ago, I called for a “No Alumni Left Behind” act, where every school would invite former students to share their gratitude. Dan McGarry, the assistant superintendent of the Upper Darby school district, recently took the initiative to put this idea into action. He invited ten recent graduates to an inservice, and they told their teachers where they were going to college, and how it would have been impossible without their teachers. “It was one of the best, most inexpensive, most positive experiences to date in my career,” McGarry said.

LF: Thanks, Adam!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this interview and the ideas shared here.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a variety of education publishers.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email....

I’ll return next week to publishing thematic compilations of past posts, and will begin addressing new questions in mid-August.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.